Plans to create an anti-Brexit multi-party alliance ahead of the June 8 general election have collapsed – leading to ferocious recriminations from some parties.
The idea of forging such a pact had been mooted just under a week ago by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, but following a decision by the Green Party to pull out of the talks on Tuesday, the whole negotiating process has now been axed.
A spokesman for the SDLP told the News Letter that whilst Sinn Fein had indicated it was still willing to discuss the idea, that would mean any resulting deal would simply amount to a “nationalist pact” – and that Mr Eastwood had wanted to avoid that.
The SDLP also said a lack of willingness by Sinn Fein to drop its long-held abstentionist policy (something the republican party had already told the News Letter it had no intention of doing) was also a barrier to a deal.
Meanwhile, there was a fierce exchange of accusations between the Alliance Party and the Green Party, with each suggesting the other had behaved in a sectarian fashion.
The failure to agree a pact could have major ramifications for the election.
For instance, the UUP has already indicated that it will not stand in North Belfast, boosting the chances of the DUP holding on to the seat.
Arguably the best shot at trying to unseat the DUP would have been for Sinn Fein and the SDLP to strike a deal so that the latter stands aside from the race there.
The whole idea of such a pact began when Mr Eastwood told a press conference at Stormont last Wednesday that, although he was not interested in a pact based on unionist/nationalist lines, he would “speak to anybody who wants to retain our membership of the EU and protect our citizens from a hard Brexit”.
This contradicted a statement by former party leader Margaret Richie mere hours earlier, when she had categorically and repeatedly told the BBC there would be no pact.
The Alliance Party ruled themselves out almost instantly. And whilst the SDLP said it would “reach out” to ask pro-EU unionists to join, none had shown any appetite to get involved.
By the start of this week it was apparent that only the Green Party and Sinn Fein were interested in a pact, but shortly after midday on Tuesday the Greens pulled out.
Its leader Steven Agnew issued a statement saying it had talked to “the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the UUP as parties who had previously taken a pro-remain stance”, but decided against proceeding further.
In particular, it said they had a problem with the SDLP’s Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the current holder of the hard-fought South Belfast seat.
Mr Agnew said they objected to his stance against abortion, adding that “we believe that Clare Bailey is much better placed to unify the electorate” in the area.
According to the Ark.ac.uk website, which compiles data on past election results, Dr McDonnell won 24.5% of the vote in the constituency in the last general election – just fractionally ahead of the DUP.
Ms Bailey won 5.7%.
Mr Agnew added: “We also met with Sinn Fein about a pro-remain pact. However, they failed to provide any indication they would take their Westminster seats. It is impossible to oppose hard Brexit at every turn without taking seats in Parliament.”
In turning down the idea of a pact last week, Alliance said it rejected the idea of any “carve-up” or of “sectarian headcounts”.
In his statement Mr Agnew added: “The irony is that it was Alliance who turned this into a sectarian issue.” He did not elaborate on this point in his statement.
Shortly afterwards, the Alliance Party hit back with a statement of their own, which read: “The Green Party have belatedly recognised their own naivety in even considering pacts, and have become more desperate in doing in the past few days.
“To think Alasdair McDonnell, a socially conservative incumbent SDLP MP, would step aside in South Belfast or Sinn Fein would renounce their long-standing and counterproductive abstentionist policy was never realistic.
“The Green Party is now tainted from chasing a nationalist pact and their seeming desire to turn several constituencies into a sectarian headcount.”
Mr Eastwood, meanwhile, said the failure of his self-described “anti-Brexit axis” was “a deep disappointment” – and said “a failure to compromise, or even discuss compromise” was behind the talks collapse.
An SDLP spokesman suggested that it might be possible to salvage some kind of deal, if some independent pro-Remain contenders could be found to stand in some seats.
He said his party had offered to support “independent, non-party aligned, pro-Europe candidates in key battleground constituencies where the electorate voted to remain but the MP voted for Brexit”.
However, it is very unclear who he could have in mind; for example Claire Sugden (independent unionist MLA for East Londonderry who was pro-Remain and whose constituency also voted Remain) has said she will not stand in the General Election, and has also questioned the worth of any anti-Brexit pact.
Michelle O’Neill, described by Sinn Fein as its “leader in the north”, urged the parties involved to reconsider, stating that the failure to agree on a pact “may gift seats to pro-Brexit, pro-Tory and anti-equality hardliners”.